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Navigating PTSD Flashbacks

When The Past Strikes Back: Navigating Flashbacks

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It hit out of nowhere. One minute I’m sparring with my partner, throwing jabs, shuffling in and out – the next, I’m nine years old, shoved to the ground by the bully on the bus. Terrified. Defeated. Helpless. 

What happened? I’m over 50 years old, with over four years of self-defense and martial arts training, and one punch from my sparring partner sends me back to a helpless nine-year-old. Why is this happening? And what can I do about it? How do I acknowledge what’s happening in my mind and body and get myself back into the present? How can I get back into the fight as quickly as possible so I’m not knocked out? Or worse? 

What can we do when the past strikes back? Let’s figure this out together, shall we?

PTSD: Not Just About Soldiers

Some years ago, a concept swept the U.S. and spread around the world. I remember first hearing about it during the Gulf War in the early ‘90s — post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Soldiers returning from war experience all kinds of symptoms as they return to everyday life. They hear, smell, or see something triggering and feel sudden anger or irritability, anxiety in crowds, and pulling away from family and friends. They experience some or all of the following:

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  • Re-experiencing the event
  • Avoidance
  • Feeling worse about themselves and the world
  • Hyper-arousal

… and more.

They either don’t want to talk about what happened or, quite commonly, seem stuck in the event, talking incessantly with others who experienced something similar and “get it.” They may resort to alcohol use and are often plagued by insomnia and hyper-vigilance. 

Soldiers stuck in PTSD more than a month after their war-related traumas with no improvement needed help and didn’t always get it. Lately, though, the focus has shifted to addressing the plight of the soldier. After deployment, they’re required to attend therapy sessions until the therapist is satisfied they can re-experience normal life.

But what about everyday people who’ve experienced various forms of trauma, sometimes extending for decades? What about the woman who keeps reliving the attack from the guy who followed her back to her dorm 20 years ago? Or the girl who is terrified of water because she nearly drowned when she was 3? Sadly, most of us go through trauma at some point in our lives. And if we haven’t, chances are we will.

We realize soldiers aren’t the only ones with a laundry list of symptoms like endless ripples on a pond when a rock’s thrown in. And it usually just takes one thing– a sudden sound, a smell, a sight – and so many of us go right back into the event, experiencing it like it’s happening right now. We’re pushed and pulled, going into a fog, dissociating (retreating from our bodies into our minds). We’re hit with pain in our bodies or other weird (unrelated to the present) body sensations. We’re suddenly terrified, sometimes shooting straight into a panic attack. Or we’re flooded with shame… depression… grief… guilt. We’re hit with a belly-churning melange of chaos devolving into near catatonia. Or a full-blown meltdown.

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Statistically, women are more likely to experience PTSD, which hits assault victims more than if they endured a natural disaster. Add pre-existing mental health conditions and childhood adversity coupled with a lack of social support, and having PTSD at some level is pretty much guaranteed. Secondary trauma is also an issue for healthcare workers and police officers. 

The bottom line is unless we get help, we’re helpless when PTSD-associated emotions strike. Unless we get to the source and address whatever’s yanking us around, we’ll be perpetually miserable. And unless we develop strategies to overcome it, we’ll be unable to defend ourselves in a situation where we’re attacked and must fight back, but we’re trapped in a flashback.

Flashbacks can make us victims. This sobering reality must be addressed so we can learn how to overcome whatever comes at us.

We’re suddenly terrified, sometimes shooting straight into a panic attack. Or we’re flooded with shame… depression… grief… guilt. We’re hit with a belly-churning melange of chaos devolving into near catatonia. Or a full-blown meltdown.

How Can We Help Ourselves?

Now to clarify, we’re not counselors or therapists at Tigress’ Roar. But if you’re struggling with trauma and flashbacks, we do advocate for getting help from a professional, be it a therapist, a counselor, or a psychiatrist. We’re in therapy ourselves. But I’ve dug around and found some good counterstrikes to the flashbacks I hope will help.

First of all, how can you tell if you’re having a flashback? Or, in the case of Complex PTSD (from abuse or neglect at a young age), an emotional flashback? You may feel physical symptoms like pain or butterflies in your stomach. A scene may suddenly flash into your mind: a place, a person, a setting, or even a piece of furniture. 

According to Anna Runkle (aka “The Crappy Childhood Fairy”), the symptoms are many, including emotional dysregulation and confusing the events in the flashback with what’s happening in the present.

Wait – what is emotional dysregulation? Here’s a quick definition from Very Well Mind’s article “What is Dysregulation?”

Dysregulation, or emotional dysregulation, is an inability to control or regulate one’s emotional responses, which can lead to significant mood swings, significant changes in mood or emotional lability” (shifting rapidly and dramatically between emotional states). 

So if you’re hit with irritability or sadness, feeling like you can’t move or must flee, if you’re agitated, feeling stressed out, and overwhelmed – chances are, it’s a flashback. 

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These clues help us recognize it when it’s happening. The good news is we can re-regulate when flashbacks throw us off course. We can learn how to stop the overwhelm. We know others can see and feel it, and we all suffer when we don’t address flashbacks. So for our and others’ sake, we need to help ourselves. The question is, How?

Anna Runkle listed the 13 steps for managing flashbacks in Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Here they are, in condensed form:

  1. Tell yourself, “I’m having a flashback.”
  2. Tell yourself, “I’m afraid but not in danger.”
  3. Own your need for boundaries by leaving dangerous situations, speaking out, etc.
  4. Speak reassuringly to your inner child.
  5. Remind yourself it will pass; it always has.
  6. Remind yourself you are in an adult body with skills to overcome.
  7. Ease back into your body out of numbing or dissociation (relax, breathe, slow down, unwind elsewhere, etc.)
  8. Resist catastrophizing by using thought substitution. 
  9. Let yourself grieve what happened to create this condition in you.
  10. Cultivate safe relationships.
  11. Identify your types of triggers.
  12. Figure out what you’re flashing back to. 
  13. Be patient with a slow recovery process to become de-adrenalized. It takes time.

No matter what, on good or bad days, we can develop the habit of recognizing and choosing healthy ways to recover. 

How Do We Address Flashbacks During Class?

Please understand if you’ve had trauma of any kind – even if you don’t recognize or realize it – chances are it will come up at some point during class. And we want you to know it’s more than okay. 

Because of my own past, I’m often triggered by something or other during class. When it happens, I will often say (out loud or to myself) what I’m feeling in the moment:

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  • “I’m feeling foggy like I want to run out of the room.”
  • “I feel triggered by what’s going on.”

Depending on what’s happening, I may say nothing except, “I need a break. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I usually go to the bathroom and wash my hands, maybe splash cold water on my face. I take a few deep breaths while I do some basic grounding techniques, like marching in place and raising and lowering my arms to feel my body and where it is and where other things are in relation to it. I let myself know it’s okay to feel afraid. And if it’s really bad and the usual techniques aren’t working, I’ll let the instructor know I need to go home. 

If we see a person struggling, one of us may take her aside and talk with her. What’s going on? How are you feeling? What are you thinking about? Sometimes we stop whatever we’re doing and address it as a group during class. The person shares what’s going on, and we encourage her. Often she can press through, continuing the technique after taking a few breaths and getting her bearings.

It really depends on what’s called for at the moment. Suffice it to say we understand and offer whatever help we can. It’s part of what we do and part of the healing journey we’re on together at Tigress’ Roar.

The Bottom Line

None of us is immune to our past invading the present and needing attention. We will never marginalize or demean you when it does. Because it happens to us, too, we get it. You’re welcome here, just as you are. Those aren’t empty words. You’re invited to join the rest of us who are struggling through our own messes while learning how to properly love and defend ourselves. We, as instructors, may be further along in our healing but still have a long way to go. And we know it. 

So when those inevitable flashbacks hit, we accept what’s going on, and for our own sanity and safety, we hit back with techniques built like any other self-defense skill in our ever-growing toolkit. We add more and more over time, evolving and healing together.

Remember, our doors are open, and you’re welcome here.

Join us.


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